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Empire of Signs

Travel is a chance to read. I don’ t have in mind the novel you’ve been saving, much less the stack of papers you foolishly thought you’d get to on that family vacation. I’m thinking of something much simpler—just the fact that part of the fun of traveling anywhere is the encounter with signage. (“Wait—I get it! That’s the word for toilet!” or “Look! They have a Cleveland here, too!”)

Reading signage in England, especially for an American academic, is a linguistically overdetermined event. A simple sign can evoke literary curiosity, charm, mystery, or terror. On a narrow country lane in Essex a pretty wooden sign (categories: literary curiosity, charm, mystery) points to Duddenhoe. I’m sure it’s a lovely place, but “Duddenhoe” sounds like the title of a novel Walter Scott thought better about writing.

Signs, of course, are supposed to help us, but we have to know now to read them. It’s embarrassing to admit that when I first encountered a London sign that read hazchem (category: mystery) I couldn’t immediately read it. It was just a plaque set low on a building facade. But in Dr Johnson’s polyglot metropolis, was hazchem really clearer to more people than “Danger! hazardous chemicals”?  ”Hazardous chemicals” I could understand, though hazchem had the virtue of brevity.

Some years ago while riding (not driving) in a car on a British motorway I looked up in the startled way one does if one hasn’t been paying attention to see a sign that read “Oncoming vehicles in middle of road.” (Category: terror.) I still wonder what one’s response was supposed to be. Maybe just duck.

Some British signs are among my sentimental favorites. Heading out to Heathrow I like the big, authoritative highway sign indicating “The West.” The West! It might mean Penzance, or Indian Country, or maybe death. The last two probably show the influence of Turner Classic Movies and literature with  a symbolic bent.

This summer I added to my list a sign in central London warning “Low Trees” (somewhere closer to charm than terror). I’m used to signs that warn of height restrictions (Tunnel 8′ 10″) and are meant for the hardy souls who drive things bigger than my rented compact. But “Low trees” is carefully nonspecific. You may know the height of your Range Rover, but how low are those trees? Or do I have to worry where I step? Are they bonsai?

My latest favorite, however, is a London sign that reads—in its entirety and in upper and lower case, Any veh. As a New Yorker my first response is “So, nu?” Is any veh  some unfamiliar variant of oy vey? And if so,  what would it be doing above a central London street?

Any veh, as you will have guessed,  is a traffic sign. And no, it doesn’t mean any way (as in “this road goes any way you want”). Any veh turns out to be short for any vehicle. I suppose it would be pronounced any vee if you said it out loud.

Any veh, therefore, means “all traffic can use this lane.”

But is any veh really clearer than All traffic ? Or does the American usage “All traffic” sound to British ears as if it were impolitely directive? (“All traffic must use this lane.”)

Like many of my favorite British signs, this one manages to be both gnomic and maybe just a tad winsome. And that might be, at least for this American tourist, the essence of British signage.

And any veh, I’m still worrying about the oncoming vehicles in the middle of road.

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